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Perspective: My Time with Judge Shira Scheindlin

Want to hear more from Judge Scheindlin? Check out the video

Before attending law school, I asked every lawyer I met what to expect. Nobody could condense the experience into one conversation, but one UC Law graduate’s words stuck with me. “Learning the law,” he said, “is like learning a whole new language. It’s a different world.” That has been the most apt description of my experience so far. Law school is a whole new world, one full of dense and oftentimes dissonant concepts that students must grow to not just understand, but synthesize and draw upon to form our own arguments. Immersing myself in these new concepts has been rewarding, but has left me feeling somewhat disconnected from the “real” world. Judge Scheindlin’s visit was a much-needed reminder of what brought me to law school, and what is waiting on the other side.

I was fortunate to attend several of Judge Scheindlin’s presentations. She, along with Judge Michael Barrett, explained to the first-year Lawyering classes what federal district judges look for in advocates. The judges both pressed the importance of brevity when discussing the commonalities of great briefs. Briefs, they explained, are 75% of an advocate’s argument—by the time oral arguments take place, it can be difficult to shift a judge’s mind. Great briefs are simple, clear, and organized. Great advocates speak slowly, answer the question asked, and never show disrespect to opposing counsel.

The traits both judges placed the most importance on helped me to understand the reality of the courtroom. As a 29-year old first-year, I am well acquainted with the working world. Still, listening to these judges discuss what they value in their courtrooms gave me a sense of awed recognition, akin to the feelings evoked by a photo of Mila Kunis buying ice cream at midnight—Stars! They’re just like us! Being thoughtful, succinct, and respectful will serve me as well in the courtroom as it has in every other position I’ve held. “Trust what you know,” one of my professors often says, and it seems that will hold true in all areas.

The judges, while eminently respectable, were also disarmingly candid. They shared tips for conquering nerves (write your argument longhand; practice in the mirror until you can’t stand the sight of yourself) and relatable stories from their own law school days (Judge Barrett, like most of us at UC Law, has been known to head straight to Woody’s after an exam). As a layperson, I’d always considered judges one step below deities in their power and presence. Spending time with Judges Scheindlin and Barrett wasn’t just a welcome glimpse of judges’ humanity, but also a reminder that I could be sitting in their seats one day. They have been where I am, they told me, and I can make it to where they are now.

Judge Schiendlin also gave a presentation to my civil procedure class regarding electronic discovery. I came into law school certain I wanted to work in the criminal field, and though I’ve enjoyed my civil procedure classes, it’s not a topic that has particularly moved me. Judge Schiendlin’s revolutionary work in the field of electronic discovery was riveting, and that is not an overstatement. She fleshed out a case that my class had extensively studied—a case that she presided over! In Zubulake, Judge Schiendlin was able to propose new standards for electronic discovery. Learning about the plaintiff’s indefatigable spirit in her search for justice in this sexual harassment case gave civil procedure a human face, and helped me to understand how these wordy, circuitous federal rules truly affect people’s lives. Because the plaintiff in Zubulake was able to provide countless examples of intentional withholding of discovery on the part of the defendant, Judge Schiendlin decided to sanction the depriving party. Her insistence that the discovering party act in good faith, as well as the new proportionality analysis Judge Schiendling included in the scope of discovery standard, ensure that weaker parties will be offered protection by the FRCP, and that the interests of justice are truly served.

The final and most fascinating presentation given by Judge Scheindlin was centered on her most famous court case, Floyd v. City of New York, or simply the “stop and frisk” case. Even before entering law school, I had heard about this case, and the famous final ruling. Judge Scheindlin offhandedly mentioned the death threats that were made after her ruling, but still cited this case as the most important and fulfilling moment of her career. Throughout the presentation, she skillfully led her listeners through 250 years of American history in order to illustrate how race has defined so many people’s relationships with law enforcement, for good or ill.

The uncontested facts of Floyd v. New York showed that over 8 years, the NYPD made 4.4 million Terry stops. 52 percent of those stopped were Black, 31 percent were Hispanic, and 10 percent were White. In 2010, New York’s population was 23 percent Black, 29 percent Hispanic, and 33 percent White. No further law enforcement action was taken in 88 percent of stops. Between 2004-09, when further action was taken, Black people were 30 percent more likely to be arrested than Whites, for the same suspected crime. In this same period, with all else equal, the odds of further enforcement actions were 8 percent lower if the person stopped was Black than if the person was White.

Analyzing the facts in this case, Judge Scheindlin found clear proof that unconscious racial bias, as opposed to objective facts, often dictates the decisions made by police officers or citizen watch committees. To remedy this, Judge Scheindlin imposed several regulatory actions, such as requiring officers to wear body cameras; improving training regarding stop and frisks; and keeping better records of stops, as well as ensuring oversight of those records. After Judge Scheindlin’s ruling, unlawful stops decreased by 96 percent, while crime statistics remained unchanged. Judge Scheindlin called for law enforcement agencies all across the country to closely examine their policing, and to weed out the unconscious racial biases that permeate many police officer’s actions.

Judge Scheindlin’s actions and final ruling in the Floyd case affirmed everything I had hoped law school could be. Though all lawyers follow their own paths, it remains true that each of us chose law school in order to change other people’s lives. Judge Scheindlin’s path may not be typical—she raised two children while attending law school, and most law students don’t have the honor of taking a class from Justice Ginsberg— but what binds lawyers together is not our real-world experiences, but our willingness to enter this intimidating new world, and leave it as a fierce advocate. I signed up for this, I often say to myself when faced with an unending collection of impending deadlines, and Judge Scheindlin’s visit reminded me why I did, and what I can accomplish once I finish.

By: Rachael Herrle, Class of 2018